Snakes are most commonly thought of as solitary ambush hunters, and there's something mildly comforting in that. The only way you're likely to get attacked by a snake is if you accidentally stumble upon one. The thought of being surrounded by a team of snakes that have been systematically hunting you down doesn't usually factor in to the average person's snake fear.
But maybe it should. A new study out of the University of Tennessee has documented a real-life case of coordinated snake pack-hunting, and researchers believe the behavior might be far more common than biologists ever realized, according to a press release.
UT animal psychologist Vladimir Dinets witnessed the unexpected behavior during a trip to Desembarco del Granma National Park in Cuba, where he was recording how Cuban boas (Chilabothrus angulifer) hunt Jamaican fruit bats in sinkhole caves. These boas are particularly interesting in that they hunt by snatching bats right out of the air as the bats fly in and out of their cave homes. The snakes are more than capable of hunting solo, but Dinets noticed that they also tended to congregate at particular hunting locations. Most curiously, the snakes tended to be more successful with their strikes when hunting in these groups.
So Dinets took a closer look. After witnessing 16 different hunting events, he noticed that whenever the boas hunted at the same time in the cave, they chose positions in the same area, as if it was a planned, coordinated effort. The snakes' formations were also highly efficient at covering space, such that they formed a sort of net or funnel that made it easier to grab passing bats.
Could the snakes really be hunting as a team? If so, it would imply that snakes may have a far higher level of behavioral complexity than they have previously been given credit for. Dinets thinks the evidence speaks for itself, and behavior like this might be more common among snakes than we realize.
“It is possible that coordinated hunting is not uncommon among snakes, but it will take a lot of very patient field research to find out,” he said.
Despite the fact that snakes are found throughout the world, only a few of the 3,650 snake species have ever been observed hunting in the wild. So it's very possible that pack-hunting could have escaped the eye of scientists until now.
We can only hope this isn't some kind of newly evolved behavior — a precursor to a kind of "Planet of the Snakes" uprising. At the very least, it's a reminder not to underestimate the mentality of these surprisingly wily reptiles.